Hajimemashite – Yuko Oki, Managing Director Global Partnerships & Managing Director Growth at Rakuten Europe
A conversation with Rakuten Managing Director Global Partnerships at Rakuten Europe & Rakuten Advertising, Managing Director Growth at Rakuten Europe and Rakuten Group Yuko Oki about career, Rakuten corporate culture, trends in Marketing and what conducting an orchestra has to do with it.
In our series Hajimemashite (Nice to meet you), we catch up with Rakutenians from all over the EMEA region, starting with Rakuten Europe’s leadership team – to learn more about not only their mission but also their career paths, their philosophies, and how their respective areas of expertise connect with Rakuten’s corporate culture. For the second edition, we sat down with Yuko Oki, Managing Director, Global Partnerships at Rakuten Europe who is driving growth in the regional business.
Hi Yuko, nice to meet you! How long have you been with Rakuten and how did you get involved with the company in the first place?
I joined Rakuten in May 2018. Before joining Rakuten I wasn’t sure about working for a Japanese company because the culture is much different from Western companies.
I grew up in Europe and spent a lot of time outside Japan. In my career I have worked for British, French and American companies, and being familiar with the working culture there, I was first a little hesitant because I had a stereotypical perception of Japanese companies (Editor’s note: Japan is more formal, and more subtle than Western cultures). But once I joined Rakuten, I quickly learned, that the culture here is international, global, and more candid than what I’d expected.
Yes, Rakuten has an international orientation, serving users worldwide through businesses based in 30 countries and regions. In your opinion, what is still traditional Japanese at Rakuten?
We cherish those beautiful values like hospitality and gratitude. One of my favorite values, which we also live and breathe at Rakuten, is being humble. Despite working for one of the biggest tech companies in the world, from Senior Management to new graduates, everyone is taught to be humble and respectful with each other and our work. This goes down to cleaning the office space together and looking after each other.
At Rakuten you have a very diverse job, you juggle four roles simultaneously. How do you manage all your responsibilities?
My roles at Rakuten are: Managing Director for Global Partnerships at Rakuten Europe and Rakuten Advertising, Managing Director for Growth, Revenue and Business Advertising at Rakuten Europe and Rakuten Group. And you know, I really enjoy this variety!
Before Rakuten, I was working in the media and advertisement industry, always focusing on one core business, but the market and people would vary. The degree of managing people and business was always changing, and I embraced the constant change… One of my key highlights of my career before Rakuten was doing consumer research to develop new strategies, and to do this right, I spent three weeks in Nigeria, living with a local family, observing their daily life, and discovering their way of doing things. I gained more from these three weeks, than from any other data research, and did this again in a rural area of China, in Egypt, and in India.
And now, you now mainly focus on Europe at Rakuten – so how has that experience changed or even influenced your work?
Yes, at Rakuten, this variety in my daily business is of a completely different kind. My main focus is the European market, but my product variety and business have expanded from entertainment to fintech, to branding and marketing, to Diversity and Inclusion (or D&I). Managing the growth of a group like Rakuten means leading growth in different sectors: culture, revenue, ecosystem. Growth can be differently interpreted.
Sometimes all those areas are packed in one day. Though juggling this variety of topics can be difficult and requires great schedule planning, the joy I receive from it is the variety of perspectives and the opportunity to constantly be surrounded by fresh ideas. It also helps me to gain a better understanding of the Rakuten ecosystem and its complexity which is our unique strength but also can be a weakness.
What could be the weakness?
Complexity doesn’t have a synergy effect. If we cannot find the commonality between our businesses in the region, and if we can’t create one strategy that everyone buys into, no one will be able to understand Rakuten. And that’s where I and my team are eager to make a difference.
You studied music and wanted to become a professional musician. Now you are leading a diverse business team. When you think about an orchestra, is there a similarity between conducting and leading a business like Rakuten?
My musical background helps me a lot in terms of building resilience and collaboration. I trained on three instruments, the piano, percussion, and my absolute favorite, the French horn, and I also trained as a conductor. Conducting is an interesting business: you manage different voices, different roles, and different personalities. You must focus on strength of each instrument and each personality. When you think about the symphony, you need to put a spotlight on different instruments and give everyone a moment to shine, and the conductor should not miss those moments to make everyone shine. Orchestras are teams, creating something beautiful together, but only if they work in perfect harmony. This is true for the musical world, and the business world.
Before joining Rakuten, you lived in Japan, China, France, the U.K., and Singapore. What was your key takeaway from living in so many different countries?
If you want to truly get to know a different culture, you need to fully embrace it, jump into it, and enjoy being with locals – otherwise you’re only an expat and your only takeaways will be one-dimensional.
I did that – and my biggest learning from my diverse cultural background and experience is to value difference and diversity, I love that people think and react differently. It’s a beautiful thing to see. It’s all based on cultural changes, and we must respect every single culture. And if we do, we get something beautiful in return: A global, trans-cultural mindset.
My home now is in the U.K., and I am happy here. But deep down, I’ll always be happy and ready to relocate, I am a citizen of the world. It’s a balance of being rooted and embracing changes and being flexible.
This brings back the idea of the orchestra: different people playing together, bringing different voices and personalities together and only together they play well. Is this also what forms your belief system?
Diversity has shaped me, but even more so the experiences of living abroad. It’s not easy, and I had plenty of unpleasant experiences too, I was sad and angry at times. But every time I experienced something unfortunate, my parents said to me, and I say it to my daughter: “Never do anything that you don’t want to experience yourself.”
And remember to take a step back when things get too complicated. Take a break, try to gain a bigger picture, and see everything from a different perspective. If you focus only on the unfortunate situation, you are missing out on many great things. So, step back, observe, and everything will start to make sense.
You worked in the media and marketing industry for many years, including Saatchi & Saatchi and Ogilvy & Mather. Looking at the role of marketing and advertisement, how has it changed in the last 10-15 years and how will it further evolve?
How customers interact with media, tech, and brands has changed a lot in the last decade. But one thing hasn’t changed: We always need to be very conscious of what customers want, consciously and unconsciously. One of Rakuten’s Shugis is: to maximize customer satisfaction, and one challenge is to really think about the customer. Because technology makes it easier to sell something, we tend to oversimplify what the customer actually wants.
These days, despite technological innovations and a shift from traditional marketing to tech-based marketing, I am eager to dig deeper and to find a so-called white space that we can enter to actually learn from our customers.
Speaking of Shugi: At Rakuten we follow “always improve, always advance”, a core part of that is to take risks, make mistakes and learn from them. What was your biggest mistake and what did you learn from it?
I have made a lot of mistakes, in my private and professional life (laughs)…
One mistake I made was I “assumed” what my daughter would be interested in or good at, and acted upon the assumption, pushing her a little too much. I thought I always listened to her and observed her carefully, but probably I did it through my own filter and interpreted it selfishly. The consequences of my behavior would have been affecting her creativity, her curiosity, and her independence. Luckily, I noticed that early and started taking much more relaxed approaches, letting her try and do whatever she wanted, and see what happens.
This applies also to managing your team: We need to believe in everyone, empower them to believe in themselves, and allow them to flourish. My mentality is hands-off! If someone seeks advice, I am happy to help, but growth is also about finding solutions and overcoming obstacles oneself, perhaps while making a mistake. There are few moments in life and in business in which we should not make mistakes, but lots of moments in which making mistakes is perfectly fine.
We also need to respect everyone’s thinking process, and everyone needs to be given space to think about what to do and what they can do. If I’m always jumping in, everyone would stop thinking. I encourage everyone to think freely.
And this is probably what a musician also does in an orchestra.
Yes, music is about interpretation and a conductor hears a diverse set of voices and instruments to align them in a beautiful tone. A conductor must listen, just like all musicians must listen to each other – and in fact every organization.
It’s not easy, but if we can accept that there is always a majority and a minority, and we remember to spotlight the minority, we can learn a lot from people in underrepresented groups. Empowering them is always for the greater good.
We also need to make sure that there is a constant effort to encourage individual employees to speak up and raise their voices. Everyone should feel comfortable speaking up and feel valuable. Everyone needs to be treated equally and fairly.
But for me the most important thing after listening to everyone is, making a decision – and being confident with your decisiveness.
What advice would you give people to make their voices heard?
Find a supporter or mentor who listens to you without judgment, and helps you maximize your voice. I was lucky to have supporters who believed in me, appreciated my different points of view, and supported me in stepping up. Get yourself supporters – and when the time is right, become one yourself!